DENVER -- Mere minutes after his Broncos teammates finish practice, a shirtless Von Miller, chicken wing in one hand and five playing cards in the other, fills the locker room with his trademark baritone staccato laugh.
It seems like business as usual at Denver's facility, despite the linebacker's much-publicized offseason problems that resulted in a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Before 2004, suspended players weren't allowed anywhere near the stadium, the practice facility or, most especially, the sanctity of the team's locker room. But thanks to a little-known provision in the league's drug policy, players who have been suspended for less than a year for substance-abuse infractions are permitted to continue working closely with their teams. (The same does not apply to PED violators like Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin, who was banished from Seattle's facility during his four-game suspension to start this season.) Short of attending practice or games, players suspended for substance abuse can do everything that eligible players can. That includes lifting weights, watching film, receiving treatment, sitting in on team meetings -- and chilling in the locker room.
By all appearances, Miller, runner-up for the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year award, is taking full advantage of the policy. If you were expecting the 24-year-old linebacker -- the most explosive, charismatic defensive player in the league -- to be transformed by his troubles into a contrite, embarrassed persona non grata, think again. A few weeks ago, looking rested and relaxed with what appears to be 10 extra pounds of muscle added to his 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame, Miller spent 45 minutes doling out wings, dealing cards, howling with laughter and occasionally breaking away from the card game for a celebratory dance.
With the possible exception of his diet, Miller is using his time away from the field wisely. When players move between buildings at the Broncos' facility, they often see Miller on the practice fields soaked in sweat, powering through an exhaustive series of game-specific football drills in preparation for his first game back, versus Indianapolis on Sunday night. His return can't come soon enough: The Broncos gave up more than 500 total yards and 48 points to Dallas in Week 5, followed by 362 yards to the Jaguars this past weekend, and clearly miss his ability to pressure quarterbacks off the edge. "I don't want to say he's enjoying being suspended, but he's maturing," says fellow Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "He's taking advantage of this opportunity to get better every day. [The policy] has helped him, and us. The locker room would definitely not be the same without having him around here."
Which raises the question: Is this relatively new NFL policy a progressive and humane approach to substance-abuse recovery, or is it a loophole that will provide certain teams and players a competitive advantage in the second half of the season?
'Win-win for everyone'
The league meets regularly with substance-abuse experts, who have recommended that the best course for suspended players like Miller is to maintain the structure and routine provided by the team. "The policy lets these guys stay around their best support group while staying on top of their work-related responsibilities," says Ernie Conwell, a player advocate for the NFLPA. "It's a win-win for everyone."
When Jaguars wideout Justin Blackmon was suspended for the first four games of the 2013 season for violating the substance-abuse policy (specific details are not released by the league), a relieved coach Gus Bradley said keeping the troubled receiver around the team environment was "a great move by the NFL." Adds Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior VP of law and labor policy, "The rule is mindful of the potential for competitive issues, but when it comes to substance abuse, intervention and recovery is our primary aim."
To some extent, Miller has already paid dearly for his indiscretions, which included coaxing a star-struck drug tester into swapping out his urine to avoid a failed test. Miller's diluted sample counted as a positive test, and he initially denied any wrongdoing -- until the plot was uncovered when a second collector realized Miller was not actually in the city where his collection was supposed to have taken place. "He's fast," a league source said of Miller, "but he's not that fast."
On top of losing more than $800,000 in salary, he is required to return $1.2 million of the $13.8 million signing bonus he received when the Broncos selected him second overall in the 2011 draft. Miller's teammates have made light of his expensive offseason by plastering the Broncos locker room with pictures of Miller's face superimposed over the body of a TV commercial character who spews cash all over the place. On Tuesday, Miller addressed the media for the first time since August, saying he had made mistakes in the past. "Football has always been the easy part," Miller said. "It's a blessing to get football back and it's a blessing to have everything I set out to do still right in front of me."
By concentrating on nutrition and strength training during his suspension, Miller says, he bulked up to 262 pounds while bringing his body fat down to 10 percent -- adding to the notion that Miller and the Broncos might actually end up benefiting from the linebacker's suspension. Miller, who set the franchise record with 18.5 sacks last season, has essentially been allowed to operate for six weeks as the 54th man on the NFL's best team. He's even permitted to use his team-issued iPad containing the Broncos' updated playbook. So when he returns to face Indianapolis, Miller will be fresh, rested, healthy and fully up to speed as Denver intensifies its Super Bowl run. And the players tasked with blocking him will have nearly half a season's worth of wear and tear on them. "Instead of guys feeling lost in the shuffle or disconnected from the team, now they can benefit from the camaraderie with teammates and the structure of having to report to work every day," says Broncos guard Chris Kuper, a former NFLPA player rep, about the policy. "Does it make a competitive difference? I guess we'll find out."
Even before Miller steps back on the field, though, the results seem to be overwhelming. Take the Jags' Blackmon. Instead of getting beaten up by opposing secondaries, the receiver spent his month off getting into great shape. "His body fat has dropped and his weight has gained," Bradley says. In his first game back, Blackmon had 136 receiving yards and a touchdown against the Rams, which, at the time, was the second-best performance of his young career. Blackmon followed that up with a 14-catch, 190-yard effort against, of all teams, the Broncos. If he keeps up this pace, Blackmon will become the first player in NFL history to register a 100-catch season in just 12 games. A similarly rejuvenated Josh Gordon posted a career-best performance (10 catches, 146 yards and a touchdown) for the Browns in his first game back from a two-game suspension this season. (He says it was for codeine prescribed for strep throat.) With 429 receiving yards through Week 6, Gordon has pieced together his best four-game stretch as a pro.
Perhaps the best indication of what to expect when Miller returns came from Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington, who stepped back on the field in Week 5 against the Panthers after sitting out the first month because of a suspension. On the very first snap, Washington chased Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams all the way across the field and out of bounds. The fourth-year pro went on to register his best game ever: nine tackles, two sacks and a nifty one-handed interception at the beginning of the fourth quarter with the Panthers threatening to score. Only one problem: Washington's lack of real game shape was evident when Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was able to catch him from behind near midfield on the runback. "He was in great condition," says Cardinals coach Bruce Arians. "I had to kid him. I thought [Cardinals strength and conditioning coordinator] John Lott had him in better shape [than] for a quarterback to catch him on an interception."
In the eyes of the league, though, that was the perfect outcome. The NFL wants the policy of inclusion for suspended players to work -- but not too well. "We can't allow competitive issues to be compromised by having a [suspended] player practice with his team," says Birch. "We have to balance these issues, and this is what we decided upon after hearing from experts on this topic. We struck a balance, and it seems to be working."
Care vs. competition
That balance -- the one between care and competition -- remains a tenuous one in this new era of heightened awareness of player health and safety. Case in point: After Aldon Smith was arrested on suspicion of DUI on Sept. 20, the 49ers had their best pass-rusher play in a game before announcing he would leave the team to seek treatment. In such cases, the league still leaves it to each team's discretion whether to allow a player to continue showing up for work. Niners sources recently told ESPN's Adam Schefter that the team isn't counting on Smith to return this season as he gets his personal issues resolved.
Many teams use banishment from the facility as an additional punitive tool or as a way to send a message to the rest of the roster. The practice is so common, in fact, that the league and the NFLPA must constantly remind clubs of the 2004 provision that allows teams to keep players around. "Banishing these guys from their support group makes no sense," says Conwell. "I can't see an addiction specialist saying to someone with a problem 'OK, the first thing you need to do is go isolate yourself for a month, then you'll be great.'"
Some teams still take that approach, and players banished from the facility for even one-fourth of the season often return out of football shape and so far behind both schematically and in team chemistry that a four-game suspension turns into a full-season punishment. That's why the NFLPA may push for PED violators also to be allowed to return to their teams during suspensions.
"The rule is a great idea," says Woodyard. "Most of the times these guys fail these tests, it's a mistake. And now, on top of that, you miss football and can't be in meetings and you're gonna be so behind for the whole year. Now, we get to see Von every day and we don't have to worry about rebuilding that relationship when he gets back and he's in there."
By keeping Miller in the fold, the Broncos are trying to help him straighten out after a series of off-the-field run-ins. There was his arrest in August while trying to purchase a firearm near the Broncos training facility; a mandatory background check revealed outstanding warrants related to multiple traffic citations. There was, only a few weeks later, a citation for speeding and driving without a license. And, of course, there was the urine swap. Miller's rocky offseason landed him in Stage 3 of the NFL's policy, meaning he can be subjected to unannounced testing up to 10 times per month for the remainder of his career. "I know what I think of Von Miller, what we think of Von Miller as a person," Broncos boss John Elway said after the suspension was first announced. "We're not trying to put the toothpaste back in the toothpaste bottle. It's moving on from here and hopefully trying to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Another violation would result in a suspension for a minimum of one calendar year, at which point Miller would be separated from the team. The NFLPA's Conwell, a former NFL tight end, says staying with the team in the short term is a powerful preventive measure to that outcome. "It's a worse punishment for these guys -- and it drives the point home even better -- when they have to face the teammates they are letting down every day," he says.
Rested and ready to return, Miller is about to start giving back. That's good news for everybody -- except for the poor guys who'll have to block him. Says Woodyard, "It's gonna be real ugly."